Empty Properties

Oral Answers to Questions — Communities and Local Government – in the House of Commons at 2:30 pm on 30th January 2012.

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Photo of Bob Russell Bob Russell Liberal Democrat, Colchester 2:30 pm, 30th January 2012

What plans he has to return empty homes to use.

Photo of Julian Huppert Julian Huppert Liberal Democrat, Cambridge

What plans he has to return empty homes to use.

Photo of Charlie Elphicke Charlie Elphicke Conservative, Dover

What plans he has to return empty homes to use.

Photo of Andrew Stunell Andrew Stunell The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Communities and Local Government

We have put in place powerful tools and incentives to support local communities to tackle empty homes. The Government published “Laying the Foundations—A Housing Strategy for England” on 21 November 2011. This sets out our plans for tackling empty homes.

Photo of Bob Russell Bob Russell Liberal Democrat, Colchester

I thank the Minister for that reply and I congratulate the coalition Government on taking action after 13 years of failure. While I welcome the empty homes premium and the empty homes fund—and bearing in mind that the borough of Colchester has 2,024 empty houses, 591 of which have been empty for more than six months—may I urge him to bring more pressure to bear on local authorities, especially as 2,000 dwellings is roughly the size of a sprawling estate, land for which is short and which would be a planning and environmental disaster if it went ahead?

Photo of Andrew Stunell Andrew Stunell The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Communities and Local Government

I certainly agree with my hon. Friend that it is a scandal that there are so many empty homes, especially if they are empty for more than six months. The total at the moment is 270,000 across the country, but the good news is that that is a reduction of 21,000 in the last year. It is important to tackle the problem and that is why we have committed £150 million to bringing empty homes back into use. I am sure that his friends in Colchester will want to take advantage of that.

Photo of Julian Huppert Julian Huppert Liberal Democrat, Cambridge

Will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating councillors Sian Reid and Catherine Smart of Cambridge city council on their work to reduce the number of empty homes in Cambridge since 2004? The Government’s £150 million empty homes fund is welcome. How can Cambridge city council access it in order to get even more empty homes back into use?

Photo of Andrew Stunell Andrew Stunell The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Communities and Local Government

Local authority bids will be invited shortly for the £100 million that we have announced for providing affordable housing, and I hope that Cambridge will be right there. We are currently drawing up the criteria for the £50 million to tackle the worst concentration of empty homes. I also know that several community and voluntary groups in the east of England have their eyes on Cambridge.

Photo of Charlie Elphicke Charlie Elphicke Conservative, Dover

Although the number of homes empty for six months in the Dover district has fallen sharply, to 872, do Ministers agree that a lot more work is needed to undo the damage of the past in Dover? In 2005, there were 674 empty homes. I urge the fastest possible action. During the same time, the social housing waiting list has grown by 14%.

Photo of Andrew Stunell Andrew Stunell The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Communities and Local Government

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend that it is an urgent task to get empty homes back into use, particularly affordable use. Often, the waiting lists facing many local authorities could be shortened if those authorities tackled empty homes vigorously. That is why we have provided the new homes bonus as a reward and are investing £100 million to switch empty homes to affordable homes.

Photo of Gloria De Piero Gloria De Piero Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

Does the Minister accept that making use of empty homes is vital not just to tackling homelessness but to protecting the green belt from house building?

Photo of Andrew Stunell Andrew Stunell The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Communities and Local Government

The hon. Lady is absolutely right. An empty home already has planning permission and is capable of use without all the aggravation often created by new development. More than that, an empty home is often the cause of antisocial behaviour and other problems in a community, so it is a double win; in fact, a treble win. I agree entirely.

Photo of Bill Esterson Bill Esterson Labour, Sefton Central

Sefton has a shortage of land for building houses but has 6,000 empty homes. Why do the Government not let councils such as Sefton include those homes in their housing strategy? That would also be a way to protect the green belt and urban green space.

Photo of Andrew Stunell Andrew Stunell The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Communities and Local Government

I strongly urge Sefton council to develop a stronger policy on tackling empty homes. I hope that with the incentives that we have provided—the new homes bonus, the investment in affordable housing and the £50 million available to tackle the worst concentration of empty homes—it will do exactly that. The matter that the hon. Gentleman raises really relates to issues in the national planning policy framework and his council’s core strategy. I suggest that he watch this space.

Photo of Luciana Berger Luciana Berger Shadow Minister (Energy and Climate Change)

Although dealing with empty homes is one way to address the housing crisis, what is the Minister doing to build more homes, particularly as the net supply, housing starts and housing completes have all fallen?

Photo of Andrew Stunell Andrew Stunell The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Communities and Local Government

First, we have commissioned a social and affordable housing programme, which will deliver 170,000 homes during this Parliament, resulting in more social and affordable homes at the end of this Parliament rather than a reduction, as happened under the Labour Administration. Secondly, the new homes bonus was paid out on approximately 160,000 new and returned empty homes in the past 12 months, and we are determined to increase that rate dramatically.